Fighting the opioid epidemic


Recently in Georgetown, Delaware, I sat at a table with four families who had been through hell. One couple lost their son to a heroin overdose. The other three families have sons who survived a heroin addiction. But these parents live in fear their sons will relapse, and they wear the pain of living through their sons’ ordeals.

I listened to them detail their excruciating experiences. Picking their kids up from jail. Coming home early to find them with needles in their arms. Discovering valuables stolen — taken to finance their sons’ disease. As a father, it was heartbreaking and terrifying to hear.

I’ve been traveling the state to learn more about the opioid epidemic that’s ravaging Delaware and the nation.

I met with hospital staff, first responders, substance abuse counselors, and treatment facility staff, along with families deeply affected by this crisis. I talked to the emergency room providers who spend their days reviving addicts after an overdose. And I talked to counselors trying desperately to help addicts get on the road to recovery, and stay there.

We’re facing an opioid epidemic. From prescription drugs to heroin — abuse, addiction, and overdose are tearing apart families and communities.

Nationwide, we’ve experienced a 200% increase in the rate of opioid deaths in the last 15 years. During 2014, 47,055 drug overdose deaths occurred in the U.S. — more than any other year. And these numbers are rising.

In Delaware, 228 people died from a drug overdose last year. That’s one person every other day. According to the CDC, Delaware ranks 9th in the country in drug overdose death rates.

These numbers have real costs. This epidemic is a crushing weight on thousands of families. It comes with financial burdens, healthcare costs, a significant emotional toll, and worst of all, death.

Delaware is especially susceptible to heroin trafficking. Our location along the I-95 corridor means that we’re in the middle of trafficking routes.

But many abusers don’t start with heroin, and some never get to that level. We have to look at the root causes, and take a harder look at how we’re prescribing pain-killers. This spring, the Centers for Disease Control provided clearer guidance to doctors about prescribing opioids for chronic pain. But there’s a lot more work to do in addressing pain management, so Delawareans don’t become addicted to powerful narcotics.

Lastly, both our state and our country lack what we need to treat those fighting addiction. Each patient is different. For some, out-patient medication, counseling, and skills training help them get and stay clean. For others, extended care facilities are crucial to preventing relapses. We’re simply not dedicating enough resources to treatment and recovery.

So how do we address a battle raging on so many fronts? We have to look at it comprehensively as a public health crisis, including the range of issues that surround the epidemic: the presence and availability of these drugs, the causes of addiction, and the lack of appropriate treatment and education.

This month, Congress passed, and the President signed, legislation aimed at addressing some of these problems. The new law authorizes grant programs, increases access to treatment, expands drug take-back programs, and creates a task force to address pain management.

This legislation came through Congress with bipartisan support — that’s a good sign. Delawareans are rightly frustrated by Congress’ inability to work together, and this was a step in the right direction.

That being said, we can and should do more. The package passed by Congress lacks the dollars to back it — requiring that we also pass a funding bill so we can act on many of these new initiatives.

And to fully address this problem we need an all-hands-on-deck approach. That means working with state and local governments, law enforcement, the medical community, and non-profits. New Delaware regulations will help address over-prescribing. Additionally, we should encourage more clinics, both in-patient and out-patient, to open in Delaware. The state should also continue to better integrate behavioral health into routine medical care, including education on all addiction treatment options.

We also have to improve enforcement efforts that prevent the trafficking of these drugs into our communities. Increased funding for collaborative programs, such as the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Program or the Counterdrug Task Force led by our National Guard, will help local law enforcement catch traffickers. I’m also heartened by compassionate law enforcement efforts such as New Castle County Police Department’s ‘Hero Help’ and Dover Police Department’s ‘Angel’ program, which help treat addicted individuals, not punish them.

At Nanticoke Memorial Hospital in Seaford, I met with an emergency room nurse who has made it her mission to get the addicts she sees into treatment. She had tears in her eyes as she told me about the overdose patient who finally, after his fifth, sixth, or tenth overdose, is ready to get clean. But by the time she’s able to get the patient into treatment, it’s three or four days later and he’s back to using again.

This could be anyone’s story — a patient recovering from a surgery, or a veteran with chronic pain.

We need to do better — for the sake of those struggling with addiction, for their families, and for all of us.

John Carney represents Delaware in the U.S. House of Representatives

(Photo: HOY en Delaware)